Following the December blizzard, The News reported that the storm “exposed vulnerabilities of underserved communities” in the Queen City.
As extreme weather events increase, communities of color experience power outages more often than whiter, more affluent neighborhoods, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which attributes the disparity in part to older, less reliable infrastructure.
Once-in-a-century storms presumably give us 100 years to protect those most in harm’s way. But time’s up. The impact of climate change is being felt across this state, the nation and the globe. Inner-city residents, who are most impacted by fossil fuels’ negative impacts, but least able to afford clean energy mandates such as a future ban on natural gas, are too often paying the price.
The state has rightly acknowledged its ambitious climate change goals are about both environmentalism and equity for communities of color unfairly burdened by pollution and energy policies that dirtied our air, poisoned our water and soil, and left us with weaker infrastructure.
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State leaders promise collaborative planning, capacity building and, as outlined in the Climate Act Scoping Plan, “robust social dialogue in order to ensure a gradual and supported transition.”
But we need more than dialogue. The state must implement its climate goals in a way that doesn’t overburden Black and Brown residents and working-class families already navigating skyrocketing rent, inflation and health disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.
Buffalo families left in the dark in December by widespread power outages relied on natural gas. While converting from gas heating and appliances to electrified options may be desirable in the long-term, the short-term costs are worrisome for cities like Buffalo, where nearly 30% of residents live in poverty.
The estimated average cost of an efficient heat pump ranges from about $14,000 per apartment unit to $50,000. There must be a deliberate effort to help residents in communities of color access programs like tax credits, rebates and Inflation Reduction Act funding.
For some, even a discounted conversion requires a multiyear savings plan. Right now, they need reliable gas service, which can be delivered in a cleaner and even carbon-free manner. Ignoring options like renewable natural gas and green hydrogen only exacerbates inequities.
Black and Brown New Yorkers want a clean energy future, but we don’t want it to occur at our expense. That model has been around for far too long. We welcome opportunities to collaborate so the state can realize its climate change goals. Hopefully, by truly listening to and working with us, the state won’t repeat its energy policy errors of the past.
The Rev. Kirsten John Foy is the president and CEO of the Arc of Justice, a statewide nonprofit organization that advances social, economic and environmental justice.